We recently contacted another vert legend that had the good manners to come to Sweden as a summer camp coach back in the 80s. His style and tricks such as high backside airs, stalled inverts and the unit makes him easily recognized. We are talking about Billy Ruff who along with Neil Blender coached at the Hägernäs camp back in 1983.
You are one of the American pros that went to Sweden to teach us how to skateboard. We’d like you to look in the rearview mirror and tell us what you see but first of all, how old are you and where do you live?
Born: Fitchburg Mass (All of about 1 month here)
Military family, so traveled a ton. Fitchburg to Edinburough Scotland.
How old were you when you first took up skateboarding and what kind of board did you have at the time?
12 years 8 months. We had just moved to San Diego, CA. Part of my Dad’s military commitment. Being an only child and not knowing anyone at school I kind of hung back and saw all the different clicks. The usual; Jocks, Drama crowd, Debate, stoners etc. Skating was still pretty new to me and saw a group of guys hanging out and there was a ramp at the school. It was part of a Pepsi demo team that came through and a couple of the guys at school were on the team. It was the coolest thing I had ever seen.
My first board was a cheap toy board with ball bearings. It did have urethane wheels. The first time on I was hooked.
Back then you could basically skate vert, freestyle or slalom (at least that was what we had to choose from here). What made you pick vert?
Yes. We had about the same categories. Never quite got the hang of slalom racing. I was pretty light and short so I didn’t have the mass to carry the speed. At least that’s what I tell myself. Freestyle was better. I did both Vert and Freestyle up to my first couple years of going pro. The contests back then usually had some kind of overall points thing. Vert in particular was never a doubt my favorite. I think it was mainly the rush you get/got. Try to think back of your first tail drop in the deep end. It’s indescribable. Sky diving and bungee jumping are close.
Are there have any skaters that have influenced you more than others and if so, why them?
It would be difficult and unfair to narrow it down. That’s the thing about skating. Depending on who you’re riding with at the moment, everyone has unique skills, styles and approaches. Maybe it was picking up my first Skateboarder Mag with Doug Saladino on the cover. Could be Neil doing some whack thing while skating in a parking lot or anything.
When did you enter your first contest and how did it go?
Not 100% sure, but I think it was the Oasis classic. Oasis was my local park in San Diego. It was built under this freeway interchange. I won the Freestyle, but not sure about the snake run and vert part.
You, Neil Blender, Jim Gray and Chris Miller were synonymous with G&S to us back here. What did skating for that company mean for your career?
G&S was a San Diego icon. G&S and more specifically the people that were involved with G&S were the single most influential part of my skate career and beyond. I learned the fundamentals of how business ran. The main people that come to mind are, Steve Cathey, Larry and the whole Gordon family. It’s not to say that there aren’t others I thank, but Steve and Larry would be the top 2.
Did you ever skate for any other deck company?
They were the only one. Although there were times I had considered other options, the reasons I was shopping board companies were usually minor and worked out in time with G&S.
When did you get your first model?
It seemed like it came pretty quick. I recall turning pro around 15 and the signature model followed shortly after. Maybe 1980???
Do you remember how many different models you had in total?
There were two main shapes. The first was traditional (at the time) shape. I pretty much took Brad Bowman’s shape (Thanks Brad!) and a later version with cut in sides. Quite a few graphics passed through. Approx 7-10 different ones.
Did you get to choose your own graphics or was that decided by the company?
G&S was really good about letting us create our own marketing, graphics and ad’s. As long as we we’re blatantly marketing a negative image we pretty much had a lot of latitude. We even got to design graphics for the clothing division. Interesting is that Neil and I met with the graphics dept for T’s and told them we want a shirt with a collage of a half dozen logos. The designers thought we were on crack. It turned out to be the #1 selling shirt for several years. Funny how that works.
Which was your personal favorite (graphics)?
The Chalice would be my favorite. I met Mique Willmott (Artist) through a couple friends of mine Toby Schwartz and Torrey Neil. . I had been trying to explain the style I was looking for to the in house graphic department at G&S for quite a while. They were all good, but didn’t quite get the concept. Mique showed me his book and I knew he was the guy. Mique had that LA rocker style and we ended up remaining friends to this day. Among other things, Mique ended up doing just about all of the LA rocker bands graphics from Motley Crue to Faster Pussycat. Great stuff.
I guess it was being on that team that brought you to Sweden back in 1983, Do you have any special memories from your stay here? The camps could be a bit wild.
Where do I start? We had heard about the camp for a couple years and it always was the Powell team that got the nod. When we heard they wanted us (Neil and I) to come we were so stoked. Everyone we met there from the campers to other camp directors and even the locals showed us such a good time. I think we may have had too good of time as we were not invited back. We were on different schedules than the camp directors.
Are there any skaters you remember from the Swedish crowd that was on the camp?
It’s difficult to be specific. I was so happy to be in Sweden, skating and meeting so many new people, that it was more of a mix of everyone. I can’t recall one person I met there that I didn’t like.
What did you think of the camp ramp back then. Lance said it had a huge transition compared to what he was used to and that it changed the way you built ramps back at home. Was this your impression as well?
I absolutely agree! The first few runs on a transition, 12ft if I recall, took a little getting used to. Everything slowed down. Larger transitions were probably the most influential development to skateboarding that allowed the sport to grow. There is no way the sport could have evolved without the move to large transition. Not to mention the safety factor. The last change like this was plastic knee pads and Knee sliding.
Apart from G&S, what other sponsors did you have?
Independent Trucks, Gullwing Trucks, OJ Wheels, Swatch, Airwalk, Nike were my primary sponsors. These were over a decade or so. There were a few others that I’m sure I’ve missed. If so, sorry guys.
If we recall correctly you were the inventor of the unit (540 Miller Flip kind of move) and the gay twist. What were your favorite tricks back then?
I’ll take credit on the Unit 540, but not the Gay Twist; pretty sure that was Neil. If it wasn’t Neil my apologies.
As far as favorite tricks go; several come to mind. If I had to narrow it down, I’d say high backside airs. Somewhere in the mid eighties at Del Mar I figured out that the trick to getting over the 5’ mark was to literally jump the same way you would on a diving board. With that being said, the coolest thing is when you get high enough and depending on the size of the ramp. A lot of the ones were around 24’ wide and sometimes 16’, You could see both side of the ramp. Not end to end but sideways so when you make the turn to drop back in it felt like you were hitting a landing ramp alla Evil Keneivel .
Before the McTwist came along, was there a trick that you absolutely had to do to be able to win a contest?
At that time it was pretty much speed and height. You had to lay out pretty hi airs, long board slides and several variations on hand plants. Little bit of stalling helped.
You could make some seriously stalled inverts back in the day and one can be seen in footage from a contest at Del Mar back in 1984 or 85 where it looks like you are really balancing it. Was this something you did often and do you have any tips for our readers on how to do the perfect stalled invert?
It’s always a plus when you get to stall one. I wouldn’t say it’s the goal every time, but in a contest setting it definitely helps with the judges. The crowd gets pretty happy too. It’s funny you mention Del Mar. Not even realizing it until several years later when someone showed me the footage. more than once in a contest there I got lucky and happen to hit the center point just right. One bit that I watched showed I locked up going back in and somehow bounced the deck and was able to land it and finish. I guess that’s adrenaline for you.
As for advice… Have a lot of free time to learn dumb stuff like walking on your hands while waiting for flights in airports..
Are there any contests you remember more than others?
Over the years there were many. Del Mar always put on a great event for many reasons. Looking at skateboarding as an industry in whole, Del Mar was kind of the Mecca for skateboarding. Most companies were based in CA. A lot of those were located in San Diego or Orange County (about 50 miles from Del Mar). When a contest was set, people would start arriving for it a couple months out. Ton’s of Europeans, Australians and out of state as well. It was more of a trade show/class reunion atmosphere than a contest. Some friends I’ve met then are still friends now.
Did you make a living from skateboarding during your years as a pro?
For the most part. Between endorsements, royalty’s, contest $’s and appearance fees I got by. It wasn’t the same as today, but back then we were just happy to get paid to skate and travel.
Did you ever have any serious injuries?
Funny. The worst injury was after I quit competition. I hadn’t skated for about 10yrs and started to get the itch again. The old story the mind is quicker than the body. I ended up with a torn ACL and ruptured meniscus. Also forgot how to knee slide.
If you had not become a skateboard pro, what would you think you’d be doing now?
Interesting thought… I turned pro pretty early so skateboarding as a career became an option in high school. As High School neared graduation I had started sending out apps to various colleges that had a good medical research and/or physics dept. UCSD, UC Berkeley for med, as well as MIT for physics and so on. I received acceptance, but was really committed to skating at the time. I decided to take a year off and attend a JC at a local college to see if a bit of time would help me make a better decision. The year didn’t really help as I had pretty much already decided to pursue the skateboarding route.
The main factor was when I spoke with my Dad about the choice I was confronted with. For better or worse, no matter which route I went, Medical or Physics for a traditional career or skateboarding it came down to this; I had a chance to be the best in the world at skateboarding. The odds of me being the best Medical or Physics leader was a stretch. Not sure if I was the best skater at the time, or even for a brief moment, but without a doubt the decision was supported by my Dad as long as I gave it my all. I think he was relieved at the thought of the student loans and tuition fees that would have came with any other decision. As far as I’m concerned it was the right decision and do not regret the path I’ve chosen and would not trade it for the world.
Are you still skateboarding?
Yes. But mostly local parks, banks, longbaording with the kids in the neighborhood and friends from way back.
How would you describe yourself?
Maybe a quote by Henry Ford at his competency hearing while he was developing the V8 engine. (Slightly edited)
“ I may not be the smartest guy on the planet and I may not know all the answers to your questions, but I have six buttons on my desk. I can press one of these buttons and have an answer to any question anyone would ask of me.”
What are you doing today?
I got hooked into the shoe business after skating via Airwalk and now have a shoe company Sha Sha Fine Shoes as well as do consulting and private label footwear for several other brands.
Just being Dad to my girls is high on the list.
We also have some quick questions we would like you to answer:
Ramp or pool?
On or above the coping?
Indy or tracker?
Old school or new school?
Frontside or backside?
Concrete or wood?
Indoors or outdoors?
Three favorite skatespots?
Del Mar Keyhole, Oasis Snake Run, and the Sweden summer camp ramp.
One noted is a Outchrist, Holland. An unexpected oasis while touring Europe. I’m sure I misspelled it. Since I can’t even pronounce it.
Blender or Gray?
Ultimate wheel size (diameter)?
Width of board?
Any parting thoughts that you’d like to share with us?
Thanks for bugging me, and getting me to do this. It was a great trip down memory lane. Brought back some great memories that I haven’t considered for quite a while!